Southeast Missouri State soccer's Katie Lever embraces adventure, development during summer stint in Phoenix
There are a lot of days between Nov. 3 of one year and Aug. 1 of the next. Two hundred seventy-one, to be exact.
That's the passage of time between the last time the Southeast Missouri State women's soccer team walked off the field, following a postseason loss to Murray State, and the first day of preseason camp for the upcoming campaign.
Even with a short spring exhibition season, college coaches have limited time with their squads, which makes it difficult to maximize player development outside the three-month fall season.
The semi-professional Women's Premier Soccer League has filled some of that gap for many players around the country, and Southeast junior Katie Lever is the most recent Redhawk to take advantage of the league.
She follows in the footsteps of teammates Lauren Kaempfe and now-graduated goalkeeper Kindra Lierz, who are in the midst of multi-summer careers with St. Louis-based Fire & Ice Soccer Club, with which they won the WPSL national championship a year ago.
"If they want to play at the semi-pro level, then we'll definitely help make a connection for them," Southeast coach Heather Nelson said. "We encourage all of our athletes to play in the summer because we only get six days to get ready. ... (To) not touch a ball over the summer, it can easily take us two weeks or a month to get back to where we would have liked to have been."
For Kaempfe and Lierz, the Fire & Ice connection was natural -- the former is from the St. Louis area, while Nelson already had a relationship with club director Lindsay Eversmeyer. Lever, though, took on a bigger adventure to play soccer this summer, traveling to Arizona to join forces with Phoenix Del Sol Soccer Club. That's the way Lever likes it, though: taking on the unknown.
"I really like to bounce around and experience new challenges," Lever said via email. "You can thank my military upbringing for that."
The daughter of a former United States Army command sergeant major, Lever grew up with new adventures constantly staring her in the face. She has lived in two countries and five different states, wrapping up her high school career in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. She represented the Olympic Development Program New Mexico state team and an Arizona Region team, and played club soccer in Texas.
So when looking for a new challenge this summer, her roots made the Southwest a natural destination.
"My mom's family actually lives in Phoenix, Arizona, so growing up I would always come to Arizona once a year to visit and see them," Lever said. "I've been staying with my grandparents while working an internship and playing soccer with Phoenix Del Sol. It was the complete opposite of a relaxing summer, but I like it that way. I didn't know anyone except my family coming out here, so it was definitely a challenge."
The challenge proved to be an excellent fit. Lever quickly earned herself a starting job with Del Sol SC, and finished with two goals and an assist in five games, matching her statistical output from 20 appearances with SEMO in the fall.
In the second game of the season, Lever assisted on a 70th-minute game winner, and 24 hours later scored her side's opening goal in a 5-3 win over the reigning national runner-up San Diego Sea Lions. She added another goal a week later to help her team to victory.
"Give credit to Katie," Nelson said. "You're going into a situation blind and putting yourself out there, and I think that shows a lot about who she is. She's a sponge and she just wants to learn and get better and I knew that they would see that in her in time. I was hoping that she might have a good opportunity to get minutes there, and it's turned out they really, really like her."
Production is nice, but it's growth that Lever is after. Playing time has been critical for a player looking to continue to increase her impact on the Redhawks, and success in Phoenix has helped build her confidence. That success has also come in a new role, helping her expand her versatility and understanding of the game.
During her first two seasons at Southeast, Lever was primarily used as a wide attacker; she says she gained some experience as an outside back this past spring. But with Del Sol, Lever was asked to play more of a traditional center forward role -- provide a physical presence up top to not only score goals but also be a target to hold the ball, maintain possession and bring her teammates into the attack.
"Thankfully, Del Sol's formation (4-3-3) was the same as SEMO's so I was able to adjust pretty quickly," Lever said. "Coach Heather told me throughout the summer, 'Be a sponge,' soak it all up and really be a student of the game. The more positions I am able to play, the better.
"I feel like I really came out of my shell and wasn't afraid to try new things on a temporary summer soccer team. I took chances, risks and wasn't afraid to fail. I really feel like I gained a lot of confidence in my style of play. ... I really added to my knowledge of positions on the field and can't wait to see where I end up this fall."
When the fall rolls around, Lever will have a chance to revisit her Arizona stomping grounds again. Southeast Missouri State is scheduled for an end-of-August road trip to take on Arizona and Arizona State. (That connection with ASU coach Graham Winkworth helped get the wheels in motion with Del Sol). Those games will see Lever face off with a number of her teammates from this summer -- five play for Arizona State and two for Arizona.
"I'll be able to see them again and have a mini reunion, but on opposite sides of the field, which is really cool," Lever said.
As for whether Lever pulls on a Del Sol jersey again next summer, that is yet to be seen. After all, what kind of adventure would it be without immersing herself in a new experience? But she has embraced her time with the club and believes she will pursue another opportunity in the league.
"I knew that the WPSL was the route I had to go to continue to develop and maintain all the progress I've made," Lever said. "... My WPSL experience with Phoenix Del Sol was incredible and I can't wait to make an impact this fall for SEMO."
Fire & Ice
Lierz and Kaempfe continued their summer success with Fire & Ice this year, helping the club go unbeaten in eight regular-season games to top the Heartland Conference and racking up a plus-16 goal differential along the way.
The Redhawks duo -- one former and one current -- will now help the club attempt to repeat last year's postseason run as well, as Fire & Ice take on fellow unbeaten FC Dallas in the Central Region Championship Semifinal on Saturday at San Jacinto Community College in Houston.